In the first page of the first story in this collection, we are plunged into a post-apocalyptic world. Umbulalasizwe, the Nation-Killer virus, has killed most of the world’s population. It seems timely in the days of coronavirus, although this kind of end-of-the-world is a staple of our field, and this story, “Of Hearts and Monkeys,” was first published in 2010. In the story, most of the population has died, but not necessarily disappeared completely, as the narrator sees ghosts around her—ghosts who try to warn her. However, the young, strong man who leads them tells her, “I’m in charge, you silly old woman.” Within paragraphs, she is running for her life as the young man lies dead, and her niece has been captured by men with ill intent.
I was shocked that Noluthando just runs. I have spent so much of my life as a reader expecting the protagonist to be brave, strong, and able to overcome any obstacle that such a reaction seemed wrong. But this is the response that keeps her alive for a cold night and a new day and the gradual integration into another group of survivors. And there is no second act for those who don’t survive.
Most of the stories here allow at least that much hope. But quite often, the future they are set in follows the grim contours of the wider speculative world, with the added complexity of the uncomfortable past and present of much of Africa. The collection’s final two stories, for example, take sea level rise as their context. As with much recent science fiction, though, these are not really “cli-fi” because they take the climate disaster as a given, not a topic in itself. They centre on unusual pairings.
In “A Million Reasons Why,” a young white woman has rejected her rich father and his promise of safety atop Table Mountain, away from the rising sea levels and the poor, to stay with the elderly Black woman who was their housekeeper. Nonhle, the housekeeper, is the story’s primary character, and her struggle with chronic pain is at the centre of the tale. Whilst the ending might be in line with our expectations of SF, this is a fine example of representation of people and issues we rarely see in fiction, and Wood employs that to render the story even stronger. The final story in the book, “Beautiful Meat,” has an elderly intersex person and a young man looking for new life at the edge of a dead ocean. There is an element of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series here, with possible magics that we can almost see as technology. The characters and challenges they face engaged me, but this time the story didn’t quite add up—a rare miss.
As a rule, characterisation is one of Wood’s strengths. “The Guardian of the Grain” is, in essence, an industrial espionage story, but with a demonstration of personal morality for the primary protagonist, amidst grief and loss. The story has Earth dependent on grain grown on the moon and a greening Antarctica; for a three-and-a-half page story, it covers a huge amount of ground, creating a well-founded character, a recognisable setting, a dilemma, and a twist—all whilst featuring a Maori woman protagonist with a philosophical stance that Mother Theresa of Calcutta might have recognised. The lunar setting is not unique: whilst the majority of these stories have an African setting, several are set in Britain, on alien worlds or in outer space. They are refracted through a fresh perspective—an active choice of different kinds of protagonist.
At heart, for example, “Lunar Voices (On a Solar Wind)” is a straightforward race against time across the lunar surface. It could almost be a hoary old Arthur C. Clarke number, with the main character being guided by the ghost of his grandfather and grandfather’s dog. But the protagonist writes “Africa” on the surface of the moon—Phulani’s grandfather points the way with a knobkierie, and the dog moves like a springbok in the lighter gravity. A further distinction shows Wood’s confidence with intersectionality. One of the characters is deaf; but her deafness is no deficit when sign language can appear holographically in a heads-up display, and be converted to and from text. Critically, when their comms fail, sign language becomes the most efficient form of interpersonal communication.
“Bridges” shares with a number of the stories a foundation in the author’s primary career in psychology. This particular story is the root of Wood’s 2016 novel Azanian Bridges and speaks directly about apartheid in South Africa, and also about racism, loss, self-doubt, and the possibility of hope which comes from opening up your life once again. A therapy session is at the story’s centre. In “Bridges,” the story turns on the creation of a McGuffin that allows thoughts to be shared. This Empathy Enhancer works—a great boon for treatment, surely, until the State decides that they have a better use for such power. In “Case Notes of a Witchdoctor,” too, a Black subject and a white male therapist are actively aware of the power differential being multiplied. However, it employs more traditional forms of empathy: the privileged white male, seeking resolution to his own relationship with his dead father, finds himself visiting his own client in a Black township. He is hyper-aware of being outside his safety zone by simply going to such a place. But his path is even more precarious as he prepares himself to accept, even partially, that the young man he is treating may find answers of his own from the ancestors. As Wood says in the notes to this story, there is a very different valence to the words “witchdoctor” and “isangoma.”
Perhaps some readers would be tempted to tell Wood to “stay in his lane” when it comes to his choice of protagonists. He resolves this in the volume’s bonus material, included after the fiction. There are specific comments on each of the stories, and further writings that show Wood as an interesting essayist.
Wood has much to say, himself, about being an African writer, and a white man writing “the Other.” He makes clear that he has been influenced by writers such as Nisi Shawl in recognising that writing the Other is an element of representation; that he feels a responsibility to provide voices, even if he is using his own privilege to do so. He does not simply rest there, relying on his personal knowledge of places in Africa, but engages cultural advisors—people from within the cultures of his characters to confirm or correct the things they do or say. He also takes the next step in his life as a writer, working with people from across these cultures to increase their chances of getting published. He also writes about his own chronic illness, recognising that even here he is advantaged by his white male background in comparison with some who suffer the same disabilities. And he talks about how his identities as a writer and a psychologist have “sat rather warily alongside each other” (p. 190)—even as it is clear that his professional career has shaped his stories, their settings, and the kind of conflicts within them.
He certainly writes science fiction well: as I hopefully made clear in the opening to this review, these stories evoked an emotional response in me; they made me want to turn the page, to understand more about the worlds they are set in, to care about the characters I discovered. And that means this middle aged white guy identified with all the variety in the volume. Wood’s stories are clearly founded in the canon of western SF; but they are just as clearly influenced by his personal story, and by his desire to show that all of the world can be part of the future. Strongly recommended.